A Belated Thanks to Barbara

As you read this post, I’d like to remind you that I think of my dad’s life with regret, as his life could have been a fascinating journey for him and the rest of the family. Now that my own mom’s death has been added to that of my dad, I think it is time to push out the words of grateful respect to one of the best people I’ve met so far in my life: Barbara a.k.a. “Mike’s mom.”

I would hope that most of us at least one point in our childhoods have at least one true friend. Not just a person we call best friend, but someone who truly defines us and who we were at a particular point in our life. As in the case of so many other people, my friend was discovered entirely by accident. (But this post isn’t supposed to be about him.)

My family had once again tripped itself up and moved into a trailer park, once infamously named City View Trailer Park. It was no slum, but it wasn’t a place people aspired to reside in. For the trailer my family had, I think even the cockroaches didn’t appreciate the reputation of the place they lived. I didn’t mind it, though, because even though people in those days tried to ignore or stay out of other people’s business, the proximity of the trailers forced my parents to at least attempt to not try to kill each other every weekend. (The Hignites had wisely got a trailer on the outside northern edge, both next to the road and a huge field.)

In my case, Mike Hignite and his mom (and his mischievous brother Jim )  were people who literally allowed me to survive on several occasions. They certainly were responsible for many of the truly great happy moments of my childhood.

I first saw Mike Hignite playing outside a nearby trailer. Unlike most people, Mike didn’t insult me or make a face when he saw me the first time. I was poor, dirty and had fingernails bitten down to the quick. Mike smiled at me and we played catch. Watching him grow up, I’d like to add that his approach hasn’t varied much and the term ‘fast friend’ more than casually describes his outlook on life.

Had Mike and his mom not been in my life, I’m certain that my life would have been an even bigger disaster. Mike would be one to underplay the truth or significance of my belief. He had witnessed the malignant stupidity of the violence and substance abuse of my family repeatedly. It took me a lot of work to keep Mike shielded from just how bad the violence and alcohol had infected my family. There were times I was certain that I was about to be killed. Many of those times ended with unexpected sleepovers at the Hignite house. Mike was poor and aspired to find a way to be someone and be happy doing it. I, on the other hand, had honestly given up hope of a good life but used Mike and his family as a template of what might be possible.

The longer I grew to know Mike, the more ashamed I became of my life. That is hard to admit. Not only was I increasingly sure that I wouldn’t survive to adulthood, but I felt infected by the sheer incivility if not downright evil I was immersed in. I found myself working harder and harder to not tell Mike things. For some of these tings I was convinced he would either shriek in terror or disgust or worse, not believe me at all.

Before I forget to tell one of many stories: one Friday night I escaped to Mike’s trailer without making arrangements in advance. Mike, his brother Jim, his mom Barb, and her boyfriend Hub were eating at the table. Honestly, I don’t know how I lied in a convincing way, but I went in and asked if I could stay the night.  When Mike’s mom said “Okay,” (as she inevitably would) I went into the end bedroom and basically had a nervous breakdown. The Hignites didn’t know is that I had been in my bedroom reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” when dad came home. (I was as far away from Narnia as could have been possible.) I could tell dad was drunk when arrived just by the way he had been revving the truck and how he slammed the truck door. (Abused kids learn quickly to gauge the impending storms.) Within moments, there was screaming and then shattering glass. Mom was yelling my name and without thinking, I ran down the long hallway and into the kitchen. Dad was sitting on mom’s chest and shoulders, holding a pistol to her face while pulling her hair. Mom was screaming at dad to pull the “f#$%ing trigger.” Dad looked up at me and then pointed the gun at me. Honestly, I knew for a fact that he wasn’t going to be happy until someone was dead. I ran back down the hallway. The back door was on the right and I flew through, not even bothering to try to shut it. After a few minutes of crying, I ran over to the Hignites. That’s how I ended up in the back bedroom, internally hysterical, wondering if anyone had been killed at my house. If the Hignites had not been there, I think that I would have simply kept running, maybe forever. As with all these stories, it sounds far-fetched. Mom would have denied it under oath. Besides the fact that the Hignites lived in the trailer park, the truth is that it didn’t occur to me to even try to go anywhere else except there. It was a “safe” place for me. I never told Mike or his mom this story.

The above story is just one of many. This story isn’t about the violence or that part of my life; understanding it, however, is a prerequisite toward appreciating how damaged I was – and how important it was to have someone like Barb welcome me so often into the safe haven of her home.

When I was young, I had fervently hoped that my parent’s anger and violence would lead to their disappearance from my life. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – there were times when my parents came to the brink of a double murder either by direct action or by driving drunk. I would like to say that I had prayed for their death but prayer had become a theory in my mind. God had long since shut the book on my pleas for mercy. Mercy was just a word written in a book that no longer had meaning to me. Many of my childhood fantasies were not of new bicycles or wealth, but rather, mostly included living in a place like Mike got to live. (I loved my own brother, of course, but most of the family who could have been trusted were in another part of the state – and they might as well have been on the moon. And my brother was made of different stock than me.)

The Hignite family somehow survived through tough times and came out with a strong faith in god and each other – something that was definitely not the case in my life. When I thought of what peace might look like, it was Mike’s mom and the family home she provided that would appear in my mind.

I would have done anything to have lived at the Hignite house. I would have disowned everyone in my life to have been given that opportunity. Mike’s family was  poor and his mom’s frugality led to some interesting stories (for later consumption.) The difference in Mike’s house was that his mom worked two jobs to support her family and her decision to live a different, better life. His mom didn’t spend her hard-earned money on drinking or frivolity. She looked directly at her kids when she talked to them, even if the talk preceded punishment. Punishment wasn’t just a threat with her, either, but she exercised both discipline and control, something else I was unaccustomed to in my life.  That had a huge affect on how I learned to watch people treat other people. His mom did her best to keep track of Mike and his brother and was genuinely interested in their welfare. In my case, it became clear that mom was more adept at playing the role of mom when it suited her or when appearances might matter. Mike’s mom instilled in him a powerful work ethic and an even stronger desire to expand the intelligence that he and his brother were obviously born with. Because of Mike, I started in band. I think I’ve written many times how being in band gave me access to a larger world that I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. I started running after the 9th grade after watching Mike play sports. I played two games of little league thanks to Mike and his mom; those two games were my only experiences with organized sports.

Later, when my family’s trailer burned to the ground, I was scared senseless to not be able to have the Hignites nearby. I always felt more at peace and at home at their trailer than I ever would around my parents. Being forced to move away after my family’s trailer burned drastically changed the course of my life. I’m convinced that more optimism would have flowered within me and more doors would have been opened for me, if only the Hignite family influence would have lingered longer.

I laugh about it now when I call it my “first job,” but Mike’s mom gave me my first job. Since she got up to go to work her first of two jobs before the roosters woke up, she offered to pay me $15 a week to babysit Mike and his brother Jim during the summer. Why she thought it would be a task to pay me for hanging out with the coolest person I knew is a mystery. Why she trusted a kid like me, against a backdrop of a family like mine, is quite the conundrum, looking back on it.  Maybe she was testing me to see if I could tolerate her youngest son Jim? (While Jim is extremely smart, that guy would have tested the nerves of Mother Teresa.)

Over the years, I have written Mike Hignite’s mom several letters, trying to bridge the gap between a sincere thank-you and over-the-top explanation. It’s a shame that I never finished a letter and then mailed it. I finished several but they always ended up in a drawer. I didn’t know how to say thanks in such a monumental fashion without being negative about everything else in my life and about my childhood. There was no way to express how grateful I was to have had her around without also condemning everyone around me. In my mind, a sincere letter should be complimentary in scope and without reservation – and in the case of Mike’s mom, I couldn’t say “thanks” without a long explanation. She certainly knew that things were bad, but I’m not quite sure she knew that my life literally was in danger more than once, had it not been for her welcoming arms.

Truth be told, I also didn’t relish the idea of catching Mike’s mom off-guard, such as running up to her unannounced and basically tackling her in a bear-hug of gratitude.  It has been difficult for me to learn to effectively express specific emotion. I’m not putting Mike’s mom on a pedestal or conferring magical powers to her. Instead, I’m thankful for all the times she tolerated me even she was bone-weary of working two jobs and of listening to our loud boisterousness. Mike’s mom probably never understood that this type of normal living, carefree and full of both joy and work was not something that I knew to be possible in my daily life.

I went to see Barbara in 1990 after she had given birth late in life. She was starting a new life even after having packed a full life into her first forty years of living. I tried (and failed) to say “thanks” in an appropriate way that would convince her how instrumental she had been in getting me to be able to survive to adulthood. I was still too young to see that life is indeed fleeting and that it’s best to say the words that need to said while you are feeling them. Seeing her starting a new life when so many other people would have been worn down by life made me very happy.

As I’ve aged, my perspective has deepened immensely. I think often of Barb and of how easily my life could have been something drastically different. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact that Mike’s mom ultimately had on me – but it is a certainty that her presence hung heavily in the balance sheet of my life.

Since all other attempts have failed me, I’ll say is as simply as I can:
Thanks, Barbara.

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